MOODY DOG SLEDS: TRADITIONALIST APPEAL

In these days of precision tooled and machined sleds, the hand crafted dog sleds by legendary Edward Moody have not only stood the test of time but are still sought out by mushers looking for a more traditional sled.

Edward Moody was a product of the New England mushing tradition and he designed his sleds with that hilly and forested terrain in mind. “Ed started out in dogs when he was just a little boy,” Nancy Cowan, New England Sled Dog historian, said. “One day he saw Arthur Walden drive by with a team of Chinook (sled dogs) and Ed said, ‘I’m going to do to that.’”That was the early 1920s and from that moment on Moody was a shadow to the likes of New England mushing legends Walden, Roland Lombard and Richard Moulton.

“He just soaked up everything those men said and did like a sponge,” Cowan said. “Ed never had any doubts about the fact he’d be a dog guy.”According to Cowan – who spent many hours in the company of Moody and his mushing contemporaries – Moody was “very, very canny” when it came to dog training.“His ability to run and train a team of dogs was phenomenal,” Cowan said. “He had a real eye for what made a dog and a sled better and how to make them even better for various terrains and people.”Moody used only white ash for his sleds which were held together not by metal bolts but rather with rawhide lashings and mortise and tenon joints.

“His sleds are almost an aesthetic unto themselves,” Cowan said. “There is nothing else like an Ed Moody sled.”Over his 70-years of sled building, Moody offered four basic models for sale.The Lombard was his flagship professional racing sled. With an overall length of 8-feet-8-inches on 1¼- inch runners, and offered in 19-inch and 20½-inch- wide models, the sled weighted a mere 30 pounds and was used by top winning mushers in the United States, Canada and Europe.Five-inches shorter and six-pounds lighter, the Roz was also a professional racing sled with a slightly higher bail than the Lombard.

For the distance racer or musher looking to carry passengers, Moody offered the Trail model which matched the Lombard in length, but carried a 62-inch bed and weighed 42 pounds.The smallest of the Moody fleet at just over 7½ long, weighing 22-pounds was the Novice model which many mushers today refer to as a sprint sled.According to a 1984 price list and brochure, Moody’s sleds retailed from $486 for the trail sled to $210 for the novice.

Today a used Moody in good condition can go for upwards of $600.“There is a strength and a lightness and a flexibility to an Ed Moody sled,” Cowen said. “His sleds represent a feat of engineering that became art and that put him way above anyone else making sleds (and) it’s what set him apart from the other sled builders.”Cowan is unsure of how many sleds Moody made over the 70-year span he was designing and building them, but did say most were sold long before construction began.“People knew to order early because there was a two-year waiting period,” she said. “Anyone going to Alaska would put two or three of his sleds on their dog truck because they knew they’d have them sold at their first stop.”

Among Moody’s many craftsmanship gifts, Cowan said, was his ability to look at individual drivers’ styles and work those observations into his engineering. In 1925 Moody’s abilities caught the eye of Admiral Richard Byrd and he was hired as a dog handler for Byrd’s second Antarctic expedition that year.

His ability was also recognized by the United States military and in 1942, according to Charles Dean in his book “Soldiers & Sled Dogs: A History of Military Dog Mushing,” Moody was at Camp Hale, Colorado, working with the elite 10th Mountain Division as troops prepared for winter campaigns in Europe during World War II.

While there, he helped in the design of an all purpose dog sled for the army and later designed a sled with a 10-foot basket and ski like runners four-and-a-half inches wide with steel edges and a keel for negotiating down slopes.Though only one such sled was built by Moody, it became known as the Camp Hale sled and was the basis for all future sleds built and used by the Army.

After leaving the army Moody worked variously with the U.S. Forest Service, as a lumberman, an engineer and heavy equipment operator. He retired and took up sled building full time in 1976.His shop in Rochester, New Hampshire, was on the main route leading to the sled dog trails in the White Mountains and Cowan said it soon became a popular gathering spot for professional and novice mushers alike.The shop, Cowan said, was an amazing place to visit. “Ed could be a little crusty at times,” she recalled.

“He was a typical New Englander.”But he was also quick to share his love of dogs and sleds with those who shared his passion for the sport.Among those was Karen Jones who, in 2005, received a Traditional Arts Apprenticeship from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts for traditional dog sled making.In the late 1980s Jones acquired two old Moody sleds.“They needed parts,” Jones, who lives in Tamworth, New Hampshire, said. “I called Ed and he said to bring them down.”At the shop, Jones picked up the needed parts along with some pointers on sled repair from Moody and his daughter Rosalind, herself a master builder and expert at rawhide lashings.

“I went home and re-did the sleds,” Jones said. “I took them back to show Ed and took a look at them and said, ‘You want to come work for me?’”It was an opportunity Jones could not pass up.“Working with Ed was awesome,” she said. “And Roz taught me how to do the lashings just like Ed did it.”Moody, Jones said, was a perfectionist whose workmanship and craftsmanship came through in the sleds.

Only the finest white ash – cut, shaped and steamed over the course of 12 months – made it into a Moody sled.“He was a perfectionist and an engineer and it showed,” Jones said. “He finished his sleds like a piece of furniture or works of art.”Works of art that performed as good as they looked.

Moody’s lashing technique created a sled with superior strength but with the ability to flex when maneuvering around the twisty trails of New England.Unlike the newer and high tech sleds popular with racers today, a Moody sled speaks to the musher, creaking like a wooden tall ship on the waves.

“His sleds are the standards,” Maine musher Penny Gray said. “Everyone wanted to be on an Ed Moody sled.”Gray, who raced throughout New England and Labrador in the early to mid 1990s, remembers the first time she stepped on the runners of her Ed Moody Trail sled.“I was so thrilled with it,” she said. “It was my first sled and there was nothing to compare to it.”Moody built Gray’s sled in the late 1980s and she has fond memories of visiting the shop twice with her father during the process.

“It was fascinating to watch him work and listen to him talk about his life with the dogs,” Gray said. “You are there watching him build this sled while he talks about his adventures with Byrd and then you go out and run your own dogs on that sled.”While Gray has logged many miles on her Moody sled, her one abiding regret is never using it in a race.

She recalled one year after completing the Sandwich Notch 60 and Ed Moody came over to congratulate her.“He was so disappointed when he saw I wasn’t using my beautiful Moody Trail sled,” Gray said. “But I’d shattered the rear stanchion on my Sawtooth Mountain toboggan sled a quarter mile out of the start when the sled hit a tree on a sharp corner.”Gray said she thought Moody would be pleased his sled had escaped that fate.

But she remembers him looking at her and saying, “If you’d used my sled, the stanchion wouldn’t have broken and you would have run the race.”As it was, Gray held on for more than 59 miles on a sled with a disconnected driver’s bow and came in a close second that year.Ed Moody died in the fall of 1994 at the age of 83 and Jones said he was building sleds right up to his death. Rosalind died five years later. But the two live on along the trails they loved and in the sleds still in use today by mushers with an appreciation for tradition and craftsmanship.“The man was a legend,” Gray said. “A Moody sled is the real thing.”

 

Julia Bayly is a freelance writer/photographer and recreational musher living in Maine. She currently has four Moody sleds.